Hey hey from Madurai. I haven’t posted until now because it was hard to find internet and time to pause to reflect: when I was pausing from India, it was to close my eyes, or walk with Reni and Lexi, the two girls who live next door to me, or write in my journal because life felt too personal for blogging. It still feels that way, a little, but I want to explain to my friends and family coherently what these past two and a half weeks have been like.
For the first week, we were “oriented” in a beautiful hotel in Tanjore, where we learned to say things like, “I want coffee” in Tamil, and how to be culturally appropriate and use a toilet (a seatless and toilet paper-less experience). Your host family will show their love by feeding you, Julie and Bill warned us, suggesting that we try to eat as much as we can, because accepting a lot of food is a sign of respect. So is dressing culturally appropriately. Covering your butt and wearing non-Western clothes is not a way of squashing your means of personal expression or culturally appropriating another place, we were told. Rather, it is a way of not imposing your Western-ness on a culture you are here to immerse yourself in.
In the U.S., if someone told me not to dress how I like for fear of offending someone or appearing sexually available, I and everyone I know would protest: a woman is never ever at fault; the way she dresses cannot be taken as an invitation for anything. I am still uncomfortable with and unsure how to think about the putting aside of my own ideas of what is feminist and just in order to be appropriate and accepted in a new place. Maybe you have to know all the rules real well before you can break them. And definitely I know that imposing my own cultural ideas about what is feminist would be dumb wrong.
So anyway! I bought some new clothes. I cried in public during that first shopping excursion: I think it was the first time I was faced with literally having no idea how to read the expressions and words and actions of the people in the store – complete communication breakdown. First of all, in stores in India, especially malls, ten or thirty people will try to help you at once. You can’t browse yourself, you have to point to things and I felt so overwhelmed and confused and tired and ogled at, and I didn’t yet know that in South India, when people are listening to you or agree with you, they sort of shake their heads in a way that we might do if we were trying to say “so-so.” I thought people were saying what I was wearing looked bad. I don’t know. It was emotional. I can laugh about it now.
Since then, I saw some temples that took my breath away. I met an elephant that draped its trunk over my head in blessing, and I felt like a friend had hugged me. I listened to this lovely professor who is eighty but could be 50, who we call Dr. V, talk about the history and myths associated with Hinduism, and loved that he added things like “If you don’t think someone’s beautiful, your eyes are being ugly and you haven’t looked at this person with the right eyes” to his lectures. I’ve hugged my host mom who always tells me to “breathe so your stomach doesn’t feel squeazy” and sometimes, well usually, pressures me to eat more than I ever could. I’ve disagreed with my host dad often, and been especially irked by the way he always seems to want to teach me something rather than engaging in open-minded, give-and-take dialogue, but I’ve also enjoyed his thoughts and kindness. Madurai feels alive and strange in a way no city I’ve ever been. The hardest part has been my internal world has felt really quiet and without words, in away it has never quite been. I know it’s important to write and talk and fully embrace all I am experiencing, but it is hard to thaw from shock. The elephant blessing helped. The air-conditioned gym I joined yesterday, that allowed me a sense of normalness and clarity, helped. The peacefulness of my living room in the evening while Appaa reads and I finish my homework helps. I going to end this post here because I have reading to do and feel the impossibility of expressing everything in one post but I’ll write again soon!